The United States must change the way
it chooses, builds and deploys future strategic space capabilities, according to the U.S. Air Force’s top uniformed space official.
“We can’t continue to go down this road where it takes us 15 years or more to deploy a space capability,” Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, told those who attended a conference in Washington Feb. 7-8 about the space issues facing the next presidential administration. The conference was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Calling it a “matter of some strategic urgency,” Kehler said the United States faces “some difficult strategic choices” in the years ahead because the projections he receives from the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center
in Los Angeles, which builds space systems for the military, do not show those timetables getting any shorter. “It takes too long and costs us too much to put space systems up there – period.”
After his Feb. 7 remarks,
Kehler told Space News he has ordered a study to determine how best
to fix the system, which he said
takes far too long to get satellites into orbits and launchers onto the pad. The study, by the command’s Independent Strategic Assessment Group (ISAG), will examine how to improve the ways the service makes its strategic choices. The group, created in 1999, includes 16 independent experts who advise the commander, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Matt Gilreath, a command spokesman. The group is led by former Air Force Chief of Staff Larry D. Welch, who picks the members on approval by the commander.
Acquisition reform, the traditional avenue to
the military builds things, is not the answer, Kehler said. “We can change the acquisition process and not make much difference,” he
conference attendees during his Feb. 8 address.
the man who oversees the development and building of space systems told the conference
Feb. 8 that space acquisition
may finally be on the right track after the acquisition mistakes made in the 1990s. “If we haven’t turned the corner, we certainly are turning the corner,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of the
Space and Missile Systems Center
. “I also know that it is very, very fragile.”
Pete Worden, a retired Air Force brigadier general and now director of NASA’s Ames Research Center,
during the same
panel discussion with Kehler
United States could build space systems “much much cheaper” and should look to the sort of engineers and industry innovators who build small satellites “in their garages” for answers. Joanne Maguire, also a panelist and executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space systems, disagreed.
“There’s nothing magical about what goes in a garage.”
Several sources at the conference from both the intelligence community and industry said the biggest potential improvement to the system would have to come in the form of
better decision making by senior leaders, both civilian and military. These
sources all cited the requirements process as a source of substantial problems and said leaders refuse to put a lock on a satellite’s design and continue to accept changes long after it is sensible to do so.
Jim Lewis, head of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Space News he believes two approaches could help the United States
build and deploy space systems more quickly. First, he said the block approach of making small changes from satellite to satellite, an approach that already has been adopted by the Air Force should, in the long run,
help shorten the time it takes to get space systems from the drawing board to orbit.
The second approach
would be returning to a practice used when the Defense Support Program satellites were built. When a sensor or subsystem was developed,
industry would use two different lines relying on different approaches. That way, if one approach stumbled or proved too slow there was a backup available. Also, both lines learned lessons about
how best to build the sensor and were able to
Ron Sega, former Air Force undersecretary and now vice president for applied research at Colorado State University, told the conference
Feb. 8 that the United States
should be able to deploy “even very large systems” more quickly than it does
now. Sega pointed to the creation by the Space and Missile Systems
of its space development and test wing at Kirtland Air Force Base as one indicator that the service is taking the issue seriously.
But a fellow participant on Sega’s panel, Mary Kizca, did not sound optimistic that many lessons have been learned that will effectively improve the way satellites are built, let alone provided a guide for building them more quickly.
“What is frustrating is that we seem to learn [the same lessons]
over and over again,” said Kizca, assistant administrator for the satellite and information service at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, builder of the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.